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Ethical Dilemmas Working With Influencers

In recent years, influencer promotions and marketing popularity have risen drastically, with brands seeking new opportunities for collaborations and ways to promote their products. However, major ethical issues such as influencer transparency, honesty, and integrity have been lifted from this. Looking into each specific domain of these ethical dilemmas, the social media world and the digital revolution have gone from a utopian place of joy where it was all about sharing memories and connecting with people to a dystopian business field where everyone will breach any moral code to receive a pay cheque.

One main ethical issue faced when working with influencers is the transparency of the creators; according to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), “If you endorse a product through social media, your endorsement message should make it obvious when you have a relationship (“material connection”) with the brand.” (FTC 2019). There have been previous cases where such information has not been disclosed; one example that stands out significantly is the ‘Fyre Festival debacle,’ where global stars such as Kendal Jenner and Bella Hadid promoted a festival on their social media platforms, resulting in 95% of all tickets being sold out in the first 48 hours. (Gillet 2019) The festival never took place, causing major lawsuits against Jenner and other influencers who promoted the festival. According to Gillet, Jenner received $250,000 to promote the festival. This not only causes distrust with fanbases but also affects other transparent influencers, a study was made by Bazaarvoice where 4,000 consumers across Europe took part in a survey and results showed that 47% of consumers feels mislead by influencers. (Bazaarvoice 2018) The study clearly indicates that the number of people feeling misled is growing, and influencers’ lack of transparency is not helping this cause. Influencers not showing their fanbase that they are being sponsored increases the likelihood of their fanbase purchasing the product, as they would think it is genuinely good and that their favorite influencer uses it regularly, hence why some influencers decide to break the moral code and breach FTC rules by not sharing that it is a paid partnership.

Another major ethical dilemma is the truthfulness and accuracy of information influencers provide about a promoted product. Misleading information given by any creator about a product causes frustration and disappointment to their fanbase since consumer expectations will not be met. According to Kantar, 44% of Gen Z consumers make purchase decisions based on influencer recommendations. (Kantar 2020) This indicates the power they hold when promoting a product, especially if they are considered ‘Trustworthy,’ which is why it is essential that they give truthful reviews of a product regardless of what they are set to gain from the promotion. Numerous influencers have been caught lying about products. Some even publicly stated that they are willing to lie, which is seen as a shocking act and shows the lack of morality some influencers have; according to Fox Business, famous TikTok star Mads Lewis implied, “I know it’s false advertising, but isn’t everything false advertising? Isn’t everything technically kind of lying just a little bit?” (Lewis 2023) and another example is when three big UK based Instagram influencers were caught by the BBC auditioning to promote a poisonous cyanide drink. (BBC 2019) Which could’ve had horrific outcomes as it was deemed as a “poisonous” drink. These instances affect the integrity of the brands working with them and the influencers themselves. This indicates even further to what extremes some creators are willing to go to earn some additional income, even if it is at the expense of someone else’s health.

Furthermore, Influencers are often faced with products and services they do not condone themselves but still are seen promoting them, having no integrity, and choosing money over what they believe is right. According to an article posted by AIContentfy, it harms brands since when people see influencers promoting a product that they don’t believe the influencer truly likes or uses, as it decreases the chance of anyone wanting to purchase that product or service, another possible outcome is loss of followers for the influencer themselves, as people will view them as dishonest characters. An example of this is when Kim Kardashian promoted a morning pharmaceutical drug without stating any of the harmful side effects it contained, and there was no evidence of her using it herself, which could’ve potentially harmed someone if they chose to purchase the product. (Nephew 2020). To try and tackle this issue, the FTC introduced a new rule in 2017 according to section 255.1 in the FTC’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising: “Endorsements must reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser.” (FTC 2017) Therefore, brands should focus on selecting ethical partnerships with influencers who condone and use their product regularly beforehand; this ensures that the endorsement is sincere and genuine and reduces the risk of misleading their audience. (Nambakhsh 2023)

Moreover, many influencers preserve large young audiences and impact children of younger ages tremendously. According to Dr Bareth, many influencers are seen as role models and are often viewed as the embodiment of success, popularity, and beauty to these young minds. Many show lavish lifestyles and promote products that are not very child-appropriate. (Bareth 2023) A study at the University of Connecticut showed that fast food was the most popular product promotion within the kid influencer scene. (Suciu 2023) Professor Colin Campbell warned that children are more likely to be persuaded by influencers as their ability to detect motives is not fully developed yet, as a result children are more vulnerable to advertisement. Hence why, YouTube had to ban food advertisements in 2020 on their platform for children-related videos; however, most of the food advertisements remain on children-targeted videos. Once again, this indicates the harsh reality and morality of these influencers, willing to put the health of vulnerable children at risk just for sponsorship payments. Especially when children follow a particular creator for an extended period of time, they start to feel like more of a friend than a stranger, increasing the odds that viewers will listen and do what they say. (Suciu 2023) Another factor that shows why having integrity is so crucial.

Lastly, many influencers have been caught purchasing fake followers to enhance the way their profiles look, as it seems more appealing to potential sponsors and marketing deals with larger numbers displayed. (Zhou 2023) According to Alyssa Gagliardi, 49% of all Instagram influencers purchased fake followers in 2021. (Gagliardi 2023) This not only harms the integrity of the creator, but it is also seen as a waste of resources for brands to pay these influencers substantial amounts to promote a product, but when it only reaches a very small portion of people, what is displayed. One real example of someone who has purchased fake followers is Kim Kardashian; according to Forbes council member Dave Platter, Kim’s fake following is at 37%. (Platter 2021) This clearly shows that even some of the most famous people in our society may not have as large a following as we think. It is reported that Kim makes $1.7 million per sponsored Instagram post. This is a prime example of why these influencers continue to purchase followers; it is getting them the attention they want and the brand deals they desire. While fake followers do not really affect the general population, it is an issue for brands seeking influencers to promote their products or services.

Influencer marketing still holds tremendous value for brands in increasing sales and getting a larger following. However, the industry faces multiple ethical dilemmas that need to be tackled urgently to improve social media experiences for all of us. Influencer transparency, honesty and integrity are critical ethical issues which needs to be taken into consideration as soon as possible, even though we do see organizations such as the BBC and FTC starting to act by implementing new rules and catching unethical creators out, there is still a lot that needs to be done. There need to be harsher punishments put into place for those who breach FTC rules and restrict influencers’ earnings since that is the only factor that is keeping them from stopping. By following ethical practices, being transparent, and taking accountability for your actions online, it will be a lot easier to hold your fanbase’s trust while also seeing loyalty, and that, in the long run, will be more beneficial for both parties.

Reference List

Bareth, Herman. “The Impact of Social Media Influencers on Young Minds: Navigating the Positive and Negative Effects.” Times of India Blog, February 23, 2023.

Content Called out; 47% of Consumers Fatigued by Repetitive Influencers. Bazaarvoice, August 2, 2018. Bazaarvoice.

“Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers.” Federal Trade Comission. Federal Trade Comission, November 2019. Federal Trade Commisson .

FOXBusiness. “Tiktok Influencer Implies She’s Willing to Lie to Promote Products If Price Is Right.” Fox Business, January 28, 2023.

Gagliardi, Alyssa. “4 Ways to Check If Influencers Buy Instagram Followers.” Later Social Media Marketing, September 8, 2023.,if%20the%20numbers%20are%20inflated.

Gillett, Katy. “Dear Influencers, Please Stop Lying to Your Audience.” The National, January 27, 2019.

Kantar, (2020 September 10). Building brands with Gen Z: new Kantar research on Gen Z’s brand preferences.

Nambakhsh, Cyrus. “Ethical Influencer Marketing: Navigating Disclosure, Transparency, and Responsibility.” Ainfluencer, November 12, 2023.

Nephew, Ryan. “Why Do Influencers Promote Products That They Don’t Use?” Medium, November 30, 2020.

“Reality TV Stars Auditioned to ‘promote’ Poison Diet Drink on Instagram.” BBC. BBC, December 18, 2019. BBC.

Suciu, Peter. “YouTube Influencers Promoting Junk Food to Kids.” Forbes, February 20, 2023.

Zhou, Liying. “Do Fake Followers Mitigate Influencers’ Perceived Influencing Power on Social Media Platforms? The Mere Number Effect and Boundary Conditions.” Journal of Business Research, January 23, 2023.

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